The Powers That Be...

Filing the report from the road this week....   My take on the texts for Pentecost 14

1 Kings 8: [1,6,10 – 11] 22 – 30, 40 - 43

(And, yes, we continue to skip over the not-so-flattering bits)

More of the same from the crime syndicate that controls Israel and Judah. (It should be pretty obvious that the writer of 1 Kings, chapters 1 and 2 is not the same person who put pen to papyrus in chapter 8.  As mentioned before, it is not unusual to have the work of multiple authors appearing in the same text, sometimes even in contradiction or opposition to something written in the same story/section).

And not to beat the Godfather imagery to death, but as one listens to Solomon offering this prayer at the consecration of the Temple, it is not hard to imagine Michael Corleone at the baptism of his godson. As the action goes back and forth between the sacred – the ritual being performed with Michael at the center – and the acts of violence that are simultaneously being wrought upon Michael’s enemies, this scene at the Temple could almost be filmed in the same way. Solomon’s father David – the old Don - showed the same outbursts of piety and humility, but this text has to be held in tension with the passage from last week, where Solomon is busy at work behind the scenes fashioning a house-arrest – and then executing – half-brother Adonijah, and then murdering Joab and Shemei. The things we do for love…

The consecration prayer itself is filled with Deuteronomic language – promising reward to all those who act in the right ways and destruction to those who do not. Knowing what we know as we read this prayer, how do we take seriously the words of the king as he asks God to “judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head.” And, how do we judge those who look the other way when the king’s guilt is so obvious. (And, that includes Nathan, who has suddenly taken on the role of consigliere).

Again, I think, these stories are offered to the readers – those returning from the exile to begin again -  as cautionary tales, albeit at an extremely high volume, and highlight the prophetic challenge to the role and rule of kings, and the sacrificial system in general. It is too easy – and too tempting for us – to reduce them to lessons about our own hypocrisy, but the writers of the ‘historic books’ were not concerned with personal piety, but were battling for the soul of the nation. Whom and what do we as a people serve? What are our core values? How do we bend our individual wills into the collective desire to build something bigger than we are that offers life to all?

Ephesians 6: 10 - 20

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”

Understanding what those powers are is the key to this text, but we have a glimpse of them already at work in the stories of David and Solomon.  And, they seem greater than ‘flesh and blood’ because they are ultimately expressed by the system itself. Walter Wink, in Naming the Powers, explains it best:

“So formidable a phalanx of hostility demands spiritual weaponry, for it is clear that we contend not against human beings as such (“blood and flesh”) but against the legitimations, seats of authority, hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions which their human incumbents exercise and which transcend these incumbents in both time and power. It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institutions and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent. For the institution will guarantee the replacement of this person with another virtually the same, who despite personal preferences will replicate decisions made by a whole string of predecessors because that is what the institution requires for its survival. It is this suprahuman quality which accounts for the apparent “heavenly,” bigger than life, quasi-eternal character of the Powers.”  (Naming the Powers, pp. 85-86.)

As was the case with the writers of Kings and Samuel, Paul is not talking about personal piety, but of the enormity of the struggle in which we are now engaged. The power of ‘Satan’ is not the work of some mythological being, but is the destructive use of power embedded in the human struggle.

And, Paul’s response is a call to arms of sorts, but cannot be separated from Jesus’ call to love our enemies, that is, to overcome darkness with a movement based on something that is counter-intuitive to any strategy we might hope or dare to employ. We are called upon to repent, yes, to completely change the way we think and engage the world. But, it has much more to do with bringing down the system then it does with telling the truth about what really happened to your homework or why you were late getting home.

 As it was those who returned after the exile, we are facing the fight of our lives, and decisions are before us that will resonate for generations to come.

John 6: 56 - 69

So, then, this is a difficult teaching indeed – as Jesus followers lament in the Gospel text - and the call to follow into this engagement gives far too many disciple wannabes cause to turn back.

But, what we have come to see in what Jesus has taught and demonstrated leading up to his arrest and death, was precisely aimed at the setting free of his followers from the traditional and societal shackles that bound them – and bound them to the system – so that they could become part of this new movement which, ironically, would be founded upon his total rejection. (Sorry about the length of that sentence…)

What he has been doing since the feeding of the 5,000 – which we read about at the beginning for this six-week run of gospel lessons about bread, wherein the crowd also wants to make him their king – is to bring them all into his own subversion of both traditions: Passover and kingship.

(Funny how the murmuring of the Israelites in the wilderness is like the murmuring of the disciples in this wilderness – both after a miraculous feeding)

Rene Girard sums up the whole enchilada this way: God’s coming into the flesh was for the purpose of revealing to us the way in which our institutions depend on devouring human flesh. We need the gift of the Spirit of truth, the Paraclete, in order to see this truth. To think of our institutions as cannibalism is indeed a scandal to us, one that will cause many a disciple to walk away and never come back, leaving even those disciples who stay scratching their heads and wondering who can listen to it. The other option to being scandalized by it is to proclaim with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”